Wednesday gave Deval Patrick two reasons to celebrate: He turned 57 and became the longest-serving governor of Massachusetts since Michael S. Dukakis.
Despite those milestones, there may be treacherous territory ahead. The governor is entering his final 17 months in office, when critics will label him a lame duck, candidates running to replace him will poke holes in his record, and legislators may ignore him.
How he chooses to navigate that time could help determine the shape of his legacy. Dukakis hit one of the toughest periods in his career in his final year in office. He was bruised after his resounding defeat in the 1988 presidential race and forced to raise taxes to cope with a budget crisis.
Patrick’s circumstances are different, but he has yet to clearly lay out how he plans to fill his remaining time in office.
He said he will summon his Cabinet secretaries and senior aides to his sprawling retreat in the Berkshires Friday to brainstorm a plan for the rest of his tenure. While he said that the strategy has yet to be crafted, he argued that laws for which he has won passage will allow him to work toward his long-standing goals, including building roads and bridges and spurring high-tech business.
‘The main focus is to use the tools we have.’ — Governor Deval Patrick, on goals for the remainder of his term
“The main focus is to use the tools we have,” Patrick said. “The conversation about what, if any, other legislation to seek is something the Cabinet and I will be talking about.”
Patrick starts down the final stretch without a signature proposal that he wants to drive through the Legislature. The centerpiece of his second-term agenda — a $1.9 billion tax increase to pay for education and transportation programs — was roundly rejected by lawmakers last month in favor of a $500 million tax hike focused solely on transportation.
Jim Doyle, who was governor of Wisconsin from 2003 to 2011, said the last year in office can be difficult. The most talented aides and Cabinet members begin to leave for jobs in the private sector. And the candidates running for governor, even those from the governor’s own party, tend to criticize the incumbent’s record.
“As popular as any governor might have been, they find themselves in a very difficult position, because nobody wants to run saying, ‘I’m going to just be like that guy,’ so everybody is kind of chipping away at you,” Doyle said.
At the same time, the last months in office can be liberating, he said. Doyle, a Democrat, said he used his final year in Wisconsin to pass a health care overhaul bill, gay rights legislation, and a sex-education overhaul.
“I wasn’t running for reelection; I wasn’t raising money; the focus was really on getting some things done,” he said. “We really had the sense we’ve got to get this done in a short period of time.”
Jack Corrigan, a former top aide to Dukakis, said that even if Patrick’s legislative agenda dwindles, he will retain the power to appoint allies to boards and commissions and use the bully pulpit of his office.
“If you look at the appointment power and just the power the executive branch has to do things, the governor is a factor until he walks out,” Corrigan said. “The question is, does he take full advantage of everything that’s available?”
Patrick’s executive authority may become more important if his relations with legislative leaders deteriorate, making it harder for him to shepherd bills into law.
There are already signs that his campaign for a major tax increase frayed relations with House leaders who rejected that plan and passed their version over Patrick’s veto.
Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a fellow Democrat, said earlier this week that he and others were offended when Patrick declared in a February speech that legislators must show “courage” by approving the $1.9 billion tax package.
“I didn’t appreciate that comment,” DeLeo said on WBZ-TV. “I have to say I don’t consider myself as lacking courage since I’ve been speaker. I’d have to say I heard from a lot of folks who just did not appreciate that type of comment. I didn’t think it was necessary at the time, and I still don’t think that we started off on the right tone.”
Paul Pezzella, who was Dukakis’s deputy legislative director and is now a State House lobbyist, agreed that Patrick’s rhetoric hurt his standing on Beacon Hill.
“It was a bit of a tin ear to a moderate Legislature that basically thought the revenue package was too much to vote for, and I think it made his last year almost more difficult and more lame duck than if he had worked cooperatively on a revenue package,” Pezzella said.
At the same time, Pezzella said, “to saddle Patrick with the label of lame duck because he is reaching the end of his second term is a little like assuming an old tiger no longer has teeth.”
Patrick likes to boast that, unlike his predecessors who resigned to pursue ambassadorships or to run for president, he has decided to stay on as governor. When his second term ends, in January 2015, he has said he plans to return to the private sector and will not run for president in 2016.
Patrick’s aides argue that that decision gives him credibility to continue his work here.
“People in the political world have finally come to understand and accept that he’s not running for anything and won’t serve in the Obama administration,” said Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s chief of staff. “He really wants this job in order to do it.”
But it is not clear how active he will remain in the State House. He continues to spend part of his time at Sweet P Farm, his Berkshires retreat.
He also recently hired John Walsh, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, to lead his political operation, including a federal political action committee that pays for Patrick to travel to other states giving speeches about his vision for the party.
Even as the governor has brushed off larger political ambitions and insisted he is focused on his day job, Walsh said he continues to field invitations for Patrick to speak around the country.
“Deval Patrick has become a national person,” he said. “He’s a leader of the Democratic Party, nationally.”